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Inter Press Service
Health Ministers, Activists Target WTO
Emad Mekay
November 7, 2001
WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (IPS) - Health activists are appealing to drug firms and Western governments going to the Nov. 9-13 World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Doha, Qatar, to make life-saving but pricey pharmaceuticals affordable for the world's poorest countries.

The effort, mounted by the medical aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders) and others, comes as health ministers from developing countries prepare to assert themselves at the WTO - traditionally the domain of trade ministers.

It follows earlier actions by some 60 countries African, Latin American and Asian countries to change the WTO's patent rules to permit them to make affordable generic copies of expensive drugs.

This argument has gained vigour in light of the anthrax scare in the United States. Washington, traditionally loath to infringe upon companies' patents and pricing, has compelled the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG to cut its price for Cipro, a brand- name antibiotic that has proven successful in fighting the potentially lethal bacteria. The United States and Canada also are moving to stockpile generic equivalents.

"This example shows us how hypocritical the U.S. is," says Asia Russell, international affairs coordinator with the U.S.-based Health GAP Coalition. "The U.S. is hypocritical for decrying the efforts of the developing countries over the same thing they are now doing."

When Brazil said in August it was breaking an international patent protecting Nelfanivir, Roche Pharmaceutical's anti-AIDS drug, in order to protect its citizens, the Bush administration and U.S. corporate media accused it of violating international rules.

Brasilia said it was authorising the production of a generic version that would save Brazil's public health agency roughly 40 percent on AIDS medication. MSF spokesperson Ellen't Hoen says developing countries plan to use the U.S. incident involving Bayer to defend their positions.

Traditionally, the WTO is the domain of trade ministers. However, "health ministers from developing countries are gong to Doha for the first time," Hoen says. "There is an ongoing debate now. The ball is rolling and nobody will be able to stop it."

"This is a long-term process," adds James Love of the non- governmental Consumer Project on Technology. "The movement (for accessible drugs) is stronger now than ever before."

In a landmark statement issued in March, a group of 60 developing countries said current patent rules should not "undermine the legitimate right of WTO members to formulate their own public health policies and implement them."

As a result of developing countries' activism, rich countries now face a dilemma, says Hoen: ''either allow access to drugs or increase monopoly positions."

For their part, non-governmental organisations have pledged to target institutional investors in the pharmaceuticals sector.

Their argument, says Hoen, essentially is that the drug makers are at risk of losing the ''social contract'' they need to do business successfully. This is because lack of access to affordable drugs is a major killer of people in poor countries.

Drug companies, however, say that new drugs cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and can take ten years or longer to bring to market. At this stage, patent laws prevent a product from being copies for 20 years - allowing firms to recoup the costs of research and development and to reinvest some of the profit in developing new drugs.

In addition, "we have enormous programmes to expand access to medicine in poor nations," says Mary Ann Rhyne, a U.S. spokesperson for Glaxo Smith Kline. "We also offer drugs on discounted prices. This is a balancing act of those who need access to drugs and those who need cure."

Rhyne says patents provide an incentive to continue research and development. Glaxo Smith Kline invests more than 150 million dollars per year in HIV research and global public health programmes, she adds.

To preserve that incentive, major drug makers backed by Western governments have engaged in costly legal battles with companies and governments in poor countries, over patent privileges.

In one famous example, dozens of international drug firms took South Africa to court earlier this year for trying to import cheaper generic versions of AIDS drugs under international patents.

The firms finally backed down under intense public pressure overseas and at home. Protesters and public commentators alike accused their executives of chasing after profit and caring little for the sick and the poor.

According to Health GAP's Russell, some 8,000 people die of AIDS for want of medical care in Africa every day.

In South Africa alone, some 4.7 million people live with HIV/AIDS. They represent half the region's pharmaceutical market - where 13 out of 15 antiretroviral treatments are patent protected, according to MSF.

"In fact, half of the people with HIV/AIDS in Africa live in countries with significant patent barriers on antiretroviral drugs," several charities said in a joint statement last month.

Armed with World Health Organisation statistics that 11 million people die every year from preventable diseases, developing countries' health officials and their allies will seek to push a raft of demands including but not limited to patents and pricing at the WTO talks in Doha.